Xander Whyte glanced out of the gallery’s front window at the sleek silver Mercedes inching its way up the Old Town’s narrow cobbled lane. Showtime. Or, rather, time to take it up a notch. With the gallery’s rooms full of guests in their cocktail finery enjoying the canapes and Prosecco, and the soft music provided by the local string quartet, he almost had to remind himself that he was there to work.
Sociable by nature and interested in people from all walks of life, he enjoyed owning and running the gallery, connecting those creating art to those interested in it, like now, with a potential new platinum patron arriving at the showcase evening. Just as he took a stride forward, a sudden waft of floral perfume, one very heavy on the jasmine and incense, blasted in his direction, and he inwardly groaned. Louisa.
Squaring his shoulders, Xander tilted his head back to eye the woman leaning over the railing of the mezzanine to his right. The former beauty queen, sometimes model, was evidently on the prowl. Again. What happened to…Jeremy, wasn’t it? Xander had neither the time nor the inclination to keep up with the blonde bombshell’s trade-in-and-up modus operandum.
Oh, he’d enjoyed their no-strings-attached, good-casual-sex affair—she’d indulged his veering-towards-Dom tendencies in a way most women weren’t able or inclined to. And she’d not exactly done poorly out of it, either in bed or out, both during and as it ended. But by the messages she’d been leaving for him lately, Louisa would be happy with a re-run. Not him. He’d been there, done…her, and if he wanted someone whose interest in him began at his bank balance and ended at his body, there was no shortage to choose from. But he didn’t. He wanted not just different, but more, somehow. Not the superficial, no matter how alluring the packaging.
She raised her wine glass at him and patted the rail in front of her, a smirk on her fuchsia lips. Oh, fuck. They’d done it right there, hadn’t they, her French-manicured fingers gripping the metal barrier hard as he’d fucked her even harder from behind? Louisa took a sip of her drink and licked her lips. Had she always been so obvious? Probably. He kept his face neutral and shook his head. If he was seeking a true, meaningful connection, she wasn’t it.
Turning, he caught the gazes of Tessa and Benjy, who frowned at his hand signal and chin jerk. He rolled his eyes. Surely his gesture had been the universal sign for a fish swimming? And anyway, his gallery assistants should understand matters by now.
“Big fish alert,” he murmured. They shrugged, Benjy turning to Tessa for clarification. None was forthcoming. “Oh, for God’s sake—our VIP’s here.” He kept his voice low so no other guests could overhear—most of them were convinced they were names, their patronage or approval courted. Which was true, to varying degrees.
Nodding now, Tessa tried to use a metallic sculpture, all shiny gleaming strips and planes of steel, as a makeshift mirror, ducking and bobbing to see the street behind her. With a tut of frustration she abandoned that rather Cubist view of the world in favour of snatching up an empty silver salver instead, angling it to see over her shoulder who was arriving. Benjy, a lot less discreet, peered through the glass at the car and the three people exiting it.
“Footballer!” Tessa was the first to identify their client. “I can tell by the haircut. Told you it would be. They’re the ones with the most money nowadays. Ha! That’s lunch you owe me, next time we’re working together. And I’ve been in sushi mode lately.”
“You and your slimy fish. Speaking of, how is Chris? Wait, actually, I don’t care, because, hello, footballer!” Benjy slid a large print to one side of the window to get a better look. He clasped his hands in prayer position, imitating the two-foot-tall sandstone buddha to his left. “A pretty one, please, gods of art, let it be a pretty one! Oooh!”
“Cila will be thrilled she rated an oooh from you.”
Xander tried to scowl at their habitual nonstop banter but had to hide a smile. Thank God his assistants rarely worked together, the gallery usually requiring only one at a time.
“Pur-lease.” Benjy turned his back to the door and pouted into Tessa’s salver-mirror, pulling at his fringe. “I know it’s great for us she brings her clients here, but her ‘career’? Swanning around the upmarket boutiques and sticking Post-its onto the pages of glossy mags? I could do that in my lunch break.”
“Actually, you do,” Tessa threw in.
“Exactly, petal. When all’s said and done, the Ice Dolly’s just a glorified personal shopper.”
Xander’s correction of “Lifestylist” bounced against Hugo Winter’s “Interiors curator” as, buttoning his suit jacket, Hugo made for the door. As usual, Xander hadn’t seen his admin guru approach, but as always the older man’s business sense must have pinged a finance alert. Or he’d been keeping watch from the office upstairs.
Whatever—Xander could, and did, rely on his friend’s expertise and had done since opening this business in Montford five years ago. Hugo’s acumen and love of organisation and figures had helped make a success of this contemporary art gallery and was helping build the new business Xander now ran as a sideline, despite Hugo’s reservations about that.
“Who’ll be giving us the frost-y shoulder as usual, I suppose,” came Benjy’s prediction.
Xander wasn’t so sure. He must have grinned at the thought that Ms. Cecilia Frost might have…melted a little after her recent experience, because Hugo shot him a dagger-sharp glance of, what, warning? No need for that. Xander would never break professional confidentiality, any more than Hugo would.
“Xander, Hugo!” Cila usually presented an immaculate cheek for a near-miss kiss, both men having to bend to reach her discreetly scented and powdered face, but now she clasped their shoulders, standing on tiptoes between them to kiss each in turn, her smile wide and her china-blue eyes aglow. She turned and urged them forward a pace to the young couple. “Meet Andy and Crissy Lees! You know Andy from Montford United, of course—took us to the top of the league. I expect you were at the ceremony last month when the club named the new stand after him?”
Xander hadn’t attended—he and Louisa had been…tied up. Well, she had, in a leather fetish corset, in point of fact. But he knew of the young rags-to-riches star Andy Lees, of course. He clasped the forward’s hand in both of his to shake. “Xander Whyte. It’s an honour to meet you. That last-minute miracle goal against Chelsea that gave us a two-one win last month? You won me a fifty-pound bet on that, man!”
The slim footballer snorted, shaking the long fringe of his otherwise short hair from his eyes. He wore it back in a headband on the pitch, Xander recalled. “You’re welcome, mate. But you? You’re this big-shot Alexander Whyte, owner of this place? I’d’ve expected something more like him, no offence, know what I mean?” The second him was Hugo, if the flick of a hand in his direction was any guide.
“Don’t be ignorant, you!” cried Crissy, digging an elbow into her husband’s side. “There’s them what expect someone owning a big house like ours to be right snobs, and we ain’t.”
“Fair right there, babe.” The sportsman winked. “Now, I know nowt about art, and I don’t even know what I like. Know what I mean? But if my Crissy wants some big glass ball or massive metal cube that Cecilia here says’ll class up our hallway and be in all the style mags, that’s good enough for me.”
“The Lees have just bought the Old Rectory in Nether Barton. And so, of course, Crissy’s busy refurbishing, and keen to see not just pieces by artists whose names are widely known, but also works by the next generation of emerging artists beginning to create an impression in the market,” Cila explained in one smooth, practised breath.
“Local people, if poss,” Crissy threw in to Cila’s spiel. “Like us!”
“Yes, quite. The Lees’ aesthetic in their décor is to showcase as much county and city talent and promise as possible.” Cila gestured around the gallery.
“I don’t get none of them big words, Cecilia. No offence. But we wanna put something back, know what I mean?” Andy said.
“And Andy’s the ambassador for the Katharine Barton School and wants to commission an inspirational painting for the foyer,” Crissy added, stroking her husband’s cheek with their clasped hands.
“Stop drooling,” Tessa hissed sotto-voce at Benjy.
Xander gave the sportsman props for working for the county’s special needs educational establishment. He nodded. “Got you. No fancy words. Just great contemporary art. Right this way.” He led the young couple around a knot of people toward a wall full of luminous images, the new collection of one of the emerging artists exhibiting that evening, one who created her pieces by crushing precious minerals into her paint, making each canvas vibrate with life, energy and colour.
He didn’t blame Andy for thinking him an unlikely owner of an art gallery. People usually expected some stooped, grey-haired, tweed-suit-and-bow-tie-sporting type, and instead got a black-Levi’s-and-white-shirt-wearing six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound gym addict whose trainer joked he might as well rename the days of the week Chest-day, Back-day, Legs-day, Triceps-day, Shoulders-day and Biceps-day, with Tai-Chi-Day his day of rest. His thick, wavy brown hair was overlong, tickling his neck and at present pushed back behind his ears so it didn’t get into his deep-brown eyes, and his stubble had crossed into facial hair a week back. Oh, well, he could always say he’d gotten a jump on Movember. It had been a busy month, leading up to that night’s fine wine and fine art evening, with the evening itself a demanding one too.
Successful as well, Hugo informed him when the last of the artists, guests, staff and helpers had gone, the musicians the last stragglers as always, hanging on for the bagged-up leftovers, and Xander was the only one left, despite Louisa’s repeated invitations and offers. Restless, now, without the noise and light that filled the place and…filled the gaps, Xander prowled through the gallery’s lower floor and ascended the narrow flight of stairs that ran from the farther room. He stopped every few steps, twisting to observe different angles and corners of his, what, kingdom?
He scoffed. This was his second gallery—in addition to Whyte’s, Candle Lane, Montford, he owned Whyte’s, Bank Street, in Manchester. Tessa asked nonstop when he’d be opening up his third, even farther south, hopefully in London, and could she go with him or be left in charge of this one for a year, to gain more experience? Her desire to launch her career at a bigger gallery or art museum in the capital was no secret. He’d just reached the tiny office on the upper floor, half wondering if he should have taken Louisa up on her less-than-subtle invitation, when his phone dinged its equivalent of a bat signal.
The thrill of something new shooting through him, he turned on the office laptop and logged on. A text came from Hugo—his partner received the same alerts. On it. I’ll handle matters, he texted back. Matters pertaining to the service he’d created and that his friend had reluctantly helped set up and handle. Ubermensch.
“‘The rent-a-gentleman app, providing the perfect dependable, dashing, distinctive male plus-one companion when you need one,’” he muttered, logging in to the management screen and wondering who wanted one now and for when—and which of his carefully selected, meticulously screened gents was available. Maybe Cila had enjoyed her Small Business Entrepreneur Awards evening with her fully professional and fully engaged rented gentleman so much she’d—
“Fuck.” Xander rarely swore, but did so now upon opening the photo attached to the filled-out sheet. The woman glowed with what he called a quiet beauty. Her pale, seemingly makeup-free face bore a dusting of freckles and her nose was strong and broad. She had a wide mouth, too, full lips just slightly parted, as if she’d been about to speak. Her complexion was made fairer and her lips pinker by her glorious red hair.
Without thinking, he reached out and touched a finger to the image on his screen, to that head tilted slightly back and to one side. What shade was that hair? It was difficult to appreciate, clipped so tightly at the base of her neck, but it was certainly darker than a strawberry-blonde, and he didn’t think this woman would have gone in for last spring’s ochre or this autumn’s burnt umber, or spent hours in a salon for treatments, unlike Louisa or Zara or Anika or any woman he’d dated over the last, what, ten years? God. He tilted the desk lamp toward his laptop. His background in art supplied him with Titian red, but that golden-brown wasn’t right any more than was the golden hue of Venetian red. It’s the auburn of woods in autumn.
A tress escaped the unseen clip or ribbon to fall almost across one of what had captivated him the most—her eyes. Wide-set and grey, perhaps, under arched brows, they stared at the world square-on, and Xander was seized by the desire to see the world as she saw it. To see her world. Was that challenge in that forthright gaze? Did she take on the world, see it as something to conquer? No, he didn’t feel that was quite right. There was more to it, more to those eyes. Entire worlds hid in their depths. Worlds he wanted to know, to…conquer. Whoa.
Where the hell did that come from? I must be more tired than I thought. Maybe holding these evenings on a Thursday wasn’t such a good idea. He looked away, then back at the pixels of colour making up the image. Those eyes still looked deep into his. What would they see in me? He wasn’t sure he wanted the answer. Not right then. Although he knew he wanted her, and for much more than an affair.